This is a blog which primarily gives some attention to movies that I find were overlooked (for whatever reason) or are simply underrated. I also comment on other, mainly movie-related issues as well. I welcome any suggestions for films to be added to this distinguished list.

One word of warning: The films listed below contain spoilers, so caution during reading is required.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Hill (1965)

"So, what's the charge? Failing to obey an order? Or drunk in charge of a cigarette lighter? Oh, you crazy bastard! You'd prop up dead men and inspect them if you was ordered to!"

-prisoner of war Joe Roberts

Sean Connery had become a superstar by the middle of the 1960s thanks to his role as James Bond. This superstardom was assured with the release of the third Bond picture Goldfinger (1964), a wonderfully stylish thriller which many view as the definitive James Bond film.

Connery, however, took pains to assure the world that Bond was only one role he was capable of playing. To that end, in between cinematic assignments as 007, he chose roles which were quite different from Bond. One of the most memorable of these was his role in Marnie (1964) which is probably the most unique of all of Alfred Hitchcock's movies as it isn't so much a thriller as it is a character study involving psychology. This low-key presentation didn't generate much attention for Marnie upon its initial release, but, over the years, the movie has generated a more positive reputation.

Perhaps the best of Connery's non-Bond work in the 60s, though, came with his role in this Sidney Lumet picture, which was sandwiched in between the Bond pictures Goldfinger and Thunderball (1965), and, like Marnie, became overshadowed by Bondmania.

In a British military prison in Libya during WWII, Connery portrays Joe Roberts, one of five newly arrived prisoners. The others are Jacko King (Ossie Davis), Monty Bartlett (Roy Kinnear), George Stevens (Alfred Lynch), and Jock McGrath (Jack Watson).

Upon their arrival, the quintet are immediately introduced to the unfriendly staff sargeant Williams (Ian Hendry) and his right hand R.S.M. Wilson (Harry Andrews), who describes to them the hill of the title; a man-made hill which the prisoners routinely scale with full backpacks in the scorching sunlight. This daily ordeal becomes too overwhelming for Stevens, who eventually dies while escalating the hill.

Williams's decision to cover Stevens's death up prompts the remaining four to begin quietly rebelling against him. They unofficially designate Roberts as their leader due to his familiarity with Williams. The more considerate medical officer (Michael Redgrave) and sargeant Harris (Ian Bannen) also begin expressing their disapproval of Williams's tactics. Roberts hopes to use their influence to bring Williams to justice properly. However, while Bartlett becomes indifferent to what his fellow prisoners are going through and attempts to ingratiate himself to Wilson, King and McGrath make no secret of wanting to take matters into their own hands, despite Roberts's warnings that such action would simply undermine their own position. The ending illustrates how powerless everyone in the prison truly is.

As Connery had become a superstar, it's not surprising that he received above-the-title billing. He received glowing reviews from film critics, thus proving for all time that his acting wasn't simply limited to playing James Bond.

In additon to his acting talent, though, what ensured that Connery would go on to be an acclaimed artist is his willingness to share the spotlight with other actors, with this movie perhaps being the first example of that as all the other actors here are equally great. Davis, in particular, has a great moment in which King protests his treatment by walking around the prison wearing only his underwear.

The film has an appropriately gritty, uncomfortable feel to it, due in part to it being shot in the Spanish desert. The black-and-white photography adds to the intensity.

Like Marnie, this film is viewed as a classic today & it also paved the way for similar dramas such as Midnight Express (1978) and Brokedown Palace (1999).

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Bloody Judge (1970)

"Justice is a terrible thing, Palofox. But justice must be done!"
-Judge George Jeffreys

The films of Jess Franco aren't exactly regarded as high art, as much as they are exploitation. These films, from 99 Women (1969) to The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968) and The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969), while attaining a cult following, have never propelled him to the same acclaim as other directors such as Alfred Hitchcock or Steven Spielberg. This could be attributed to the fact that Franco's films are notoriously low-budget, along with the emphasis on sexually and even human depravity which runs throughout much of his filmography. Even Franco's well-intended version of Dracula (1970), while more faithful to the Bram Stoker novel than Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), suffers from sloppy editing (that seems to be the problematic issue with film editing: It's either undeniably brilliant-like in 1975's Jaws-or it's unbelievably shoddy).

The Bloody Judge, however, illustrates what Franco can do when given a strong budget. It also has Christopher Lee (who worked with Franco numerous times, including his Fu Manchu and Dracula films) in one of his best roles as the title character. This film's obvious influence was Witchfinder General, with this movie taking place about 40-50 years afterward. Like Vincent Price's Matthew Hopkins in that film, Lee's character was a real-life figure; one George Jeffreys, who served under King James II when England was in the midst of civil war. Also like Hopkins, Jeffreys believes that his horrific acts are for a greater good. Unlike Hopkins, though, Jeffreys doesn't roam the countryside seeking witches or potential traitors to the crown. Rather, he spends much of the film holding court, condemning people to death for treason and/or sorcery. Although Lee is terrifying when pronouncing sentence, his scenes outside the courtroom are also interesting. In numerous scenes, Jeffreys has moments of discomfort brought on by kidney stones, which, in the 17th century, were untreatable. This condition eventually takes his life as he lays in prison once James II is overthrown. Jeffreys's brand of justice is delivered by his executioner Jack Ketch (played by Howard Vernon, who has the same look that Boris Karloff had in 1939's Tower of London), who brutally tortures those convicted before they are publicly executed.

Many of these victims are female, and it is these scenes of violence, nudity, and even lesbianism which have led many to treat this with the same indifference as Franco's other films (shockingly, the film got a PG rating). A friend of mine even called it The Devil's Rejects (2005) done as an historical drama. This indifference was exemplified when it was given the absurd title Night of the Blood Monster for its US release. While The Conqueror Worm gave the false impression that Witchfinder General was an Edgar Allan Poe tale, it still rightfully reflected that movie's emphasis on death. In the case of Franco's film, though, the title change made it sound like a generic monster movie, instead of the period piece it is. Another reason this film stands out in Franco's filmography is that the battle scenes are nicely done. One of Franco's first jobs was filming the second unit for Orson Welles's Chimes of Midnight (1966), which itself had memorable battle scenes, which makes his fine work in this portion of the film particularly fitting. Bruno Nicolai's musical score is another great aspect to the film, as it is appropriately dramatic without being over the top. While DVD has thankfully restored this film to its complete glory in recent years, this film, like Witchfinder General, would certainly have a better reputation had its director been more, shall we say, mainstream.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

State of Grace (1990)*

"What is it you want, Frankie?"
"I don't gotta want something all the time, do I?"
"I never knew you when you didn't."
-Kathleen and Frankie Flannery.

Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (1972) set the benchmark for all gangster movies. Each one which has come in the years since has been compared to it in one way or another. That's a reason why this film was overshadowed upon its initial release by The Godfather Part III as well as Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas. Like Coppola's gangster epic, this is a story of mobsters with the underlying current of family and loyalty. Sean Penn plays Terry Noonan, a fellow who returns from Boston to his childhood haunts in Hell's Kitchen, where he's happily reunited with his best friend Jackie Flannery (Gary Oldman) and Jackie's brother Frankie (Ed Harris). Unbeknownest to them, however, Terry is now an undercover cop sent to bring down their criminal organization before they can strike a deal with the neighboring Italian Mafia. At the same time, Terry rekindles his romantic relationship with the Flannerys' sister Kathleen (Robin Wright) who, like Diane Keaton's Kay in The Godfather, doesn't want anything to do with her family's business practices (to that end, she works at a hotel on the other side of the city). She makes it clear to Terry that she won't be with him if he plans to go along with Frankie and Jackie's dealings again. The acting is great all around, but Penn, whom I've always regarded as one of the most intense actors of our time, is the one who sells it. His self-conflict as he contends with betraying the guys he's known & loved since childhood are completely believable. At one point, he interrupts his lovemaking with Kathleen by screaming, "I'M A F***ING JUDAS COP!" This self-torment intensifies when he realizes that Frankie, unbeknown to Jackie & Kathleen, has killed another childhood pal of theirs (John C. Reilly). Even when Terry flat out tells his superior (John Turturro) that he quits the force, he knows that it's not that easy. Terry knows that the only way out of his situation is to see it through. *Thanks to Macphist0 at for recommending that I review this film.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Beguiled (1971)

"You beast!"
"That's right, but I don't run a school for young girls. And I just thought these girls might like to know what kind of woman runs this place!"
-Martha Farnsworth and John McBurney.

Just before he began his directing career the same year with Play Misty for Me (a superlative, ahead-of-its-time thriller which itself may have been relegated to the status of a little-known gem were it not for the fact that its then-novice director had already achieved worldwide fame as an actor), Clint Eastwood starred in this Civil War film which is, for all intents and purposes, the first great drama he did which was neither a western nor an action film. Add to that the fact Dirty Harry was released after Misty, thus making 1971 a very good year for Eastwood.
Here, he plays a Union soldier, one John McBurney, who is wounded behind Confederate lines. He is discovered by a young girl who is instantly taken with his rougish charm (although the audience learns via flashbacks that he's not the innocent victim he claims to be) and guides him back to her girls school in Louisiana, which is devoid of men as they are all on the front lines.
As he's nursed back to health, he propositions -and is propositioned by- some of the students, who aren't quite of legal age, as well as their sensitve school teacher, Edwina Dabney (Elizabeth Hartman) and even the stern headmistress, Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page).
Things take a turn for the worse when Edwina sees John with one of the students one evening and, in a fit of rage, pushes him down a flight of stairs, fracturing his leg. Martha then uses this opportunity to basically assume power over him by unnecessarily amputating the wounded appendage. One of the film's best moments is the look of terror on Eastwood's face when he sees that he no longer has two legs. As far as I'm concerned, that moment marked the beginning of Clint proving that he wasn't simply an onscreen 'tough guy.'
Equally great is how John, having gained both Edwina and Martha's confidence when he first arrived, discovers Martha's incestous relationship with her late brother. The audience (but presumably none of the characters) also learns of her romantic feelings for Edwina. It also doesn't take him long to realize that their servant (Mae Mercer) isn't really that as she's treated equally and is as educated and as opinionated as the rest of the ladies in the school, which, in this time period, was a big no-no.
This leads to the great dramatic moment when John basically airs Martha's dirty laundry in front of the rest of the school. Hence, a delicous battle of wits forms between John and these women. They could easily hand him over to the next Confederate patrol that happens by, but he could expose their secrets at that point as well.
There is no way that this could end except tragically. This downbeat tone turned many viewers away in 1971, as they expected Clint Eastwood to triumph. Today, however, The Beguiled can be proudly seen as the precursor to Eastwood dramas such as Honkytonk Man (1982), Mystic River (2003), and even Unforgiven (1992); dramas in which, even if someone experiences triumph, nobody truly wins.